Ballet Arizona's Nutcracker Is an Enjoyable Holiday Staple

If you're like my family and me, then seeing The Nutcracker is a holiday tradition. The score is as familiar as Christmas carols, and the story as well known as a favorite bedtime book. And if you go to Ballet Arizona's Nutcracker looking to witness the magic of the Nutcracker for what feels like the millionth time, you'll be satisfied.

Artistic director Ib Anderson's rendition of the show may not be the most youthful or creative around, but it's an enjoyable production for ballet aficionados and children alike.

The long and uneventful overture is the first in a series of missed opportunities. While watching nearly three minutes of video, you might wonder why such a wonderful piece of music wasn't inspiring enough to deserve choreography. It's the same story with the battle scene, which falls flat in both energy and action. The most prominent example might be the last scene of the first act, which overuses literal smoke and figurative mirrors to distract from its one-dimensional choreography.

The best scene of the first act is the snow scene, a prime example of beautifully choreographed chaos. Dressed in long white tutus, the corps of dancers form geometric shapes and execute complicated formation changes and roll-offs. As the music builds to a crescendo — the fake snow falling thicker than ever — the dancers begin a dizzying series of hopping turns that's simple but beautiful.

Of the dances in the Land of Sweets, the Arabian Coffee is a likely favorite. Jessica Phillips and Myles Lavallee perform the duet nearly perfectly, executing the complex lifts with fascinating accuracy. Jay Markov and Brian Leonard's high-energy performance of the Russian Trepak is a sure crowd-pleaser, but the standout of the second act is Jillian Barrell as the Dew Drop. Barrell, who also played the role of Snow Queen in this production, is light as a feather and a joy to watch.

I won't lie and say this is my favorite version of The Nutcracker, but it's a solid show nonetheless. It would be nice to see more live action and fewer fancy effects, but the high-quality production elements might just appeal to those once-a-year audience members looking for holiday entertainment rather than classical ballet. And that's okay.

Though the story of Frances Smith Cohen's The Snow Queen isn't exactly a holiday tale, the local show has become a Christmastime tradition for many Valley families.

In it, Cohen turns the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale of the same name into a 90-minute performance that includes students from dozens of local dance schools, in addition to the members of Center Dance Ensemble. It's a decidedly family-friendly — and, specifically, kid-friendly — show that follows a young woman as she rescues her love from the clutches of the icy Snow Queen.

The tale begins when the Snow Queen smashes her magic mirror. The shards reach Kai, a village dancer, piercing his heart and eye. His heart subsequently freezes, making him forget his love, Gerta. He runs away, and she, of course, pursues him — the journey taking her to the homes of the Snow Queen's three sisters, who rule their own seasons.

Much of show's charm comes from the many young performers who appear in it. In nearly every scene, dancers ranging in age from 7 to 18 leap and spin across the stage, their half-pointed toes and enormous grins making it nearly impossible not to smile. It's nice to see the young dancers actually dancing, rather than just serving as a living props or mindlessly executing overly simplistic choreography.

Erica Lizette's performance as Gerta, the lovestruck village girl, is a delight. The likable and energetic performer's respectable acting skills make her a perfect fit for the role, which requires no small amount of pantomime. Less satisfying is D. Daniel Hollingshead as Kai. Hollingshead's far from flawless technique is confusing and at times distracting from rest of the production.

The role of the Snow Queen, played by Amber Robins, is a smaller one than you'd expect. She's almost entirely unseen until the final two scenes, though it's still enough time to appreciate Robins as a talented performer. And despite an unflattering costume, Katie McDowell makes a charming Rose Spirit.

Overall, the production may not wow you with its costuming or sets, but it might be enough to impress your young companion. And though The Snow Queen probably isn't the best holiday production in town, it might just be the most heartwarming.

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Lauren Saria
Contact: Lauren Saria